Think politics are lie-filled, money-driven and negative now? Go back a couple of centuries and 38 presidents and ask Andrew Jackson — or, anyway, the rock-star version of Old Hickory portrayed in the Unicorn Theatre's Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.
Those wealthy New England Congress fucks would rather tax us and play polo all day than defend the frontier, this Jackson complains in "I'm Not That Guy." The brisk, sharp Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson doesn't offer the definitive explanation of how its subject becomes that guy — soldier, president, shaper of the young United States. But it makes a vigorous case for the rock musical (something KC has seen a lot of lately), and it won me over from its first number.
Directed by Cynthia Levin, this Unicorn Theatre and UMKC Theatre coproduction of the Tony Award nominee is a comic-book, SNL version of history, squeezed through a Twitter feed. Alex Timbers' book and Michael Friedman's music and lyrics put a satirical spin on the man and his American era, and the issues under hot debate then — states' rights, federal power, the rich versus the common citizen, "foreigners" — don't sound like a past that's past.
In tight, pop-idol jeans, Shea Coffman is the iconoclastic Jackson: slaveholder and sometimes ruthless solder, then politician and, ultimately, the seventh president. He was a candidate — AJ! AJ! AJ! — people "wanted to have a beer with." And despite the one-act, 90-minute show's breakneck pace and abbreviated length, Coffman manages to give this figure — "who put the 'man' in 'Manifest Destiny' " and "made Jefferson look like a pussy," the script says — feelings, even some depth.
That in-your-face tone fits a Jackson who grew up humble to become a hot-tempered and duel-prone man who often ignored orders and the rule of law. But this show isn't all anger and punk. It depicts a complicated political figure destined to have a major impact on this country's course and character. It's irreverent, but its bite is leavened by style and humor, thanks in part to Christina Burton's spirited choreography. (And it's not all irreverence. I can still hear Chioma Anyanwu's voice in "Ten Little Indians," a touching number that points to Jackson's devastating policy toward Native Americans.)
The show and its capable cast of 12 use the entire stage, anchored by facades of a log cabin and the White House (rendered askew, distorted as in a dream, by set designer Matthew Mott). A four-piece band, led by Cody Wyoming (with music direction by Jeremy Watson), sits upstage and is incorporated in the performance, and cast members Vi Tran, Matthew Rapport, Sam Wright and Jacob Aaron Cullum sometimes play as well.
The talented Katie Karel is the long-suffering Rachel, the love of Jackson's life. They meet when he's recuperating from a wound, and their lustful bloodletting is a funny, if obvious, metaphor for his life.
Humorous anachronisms pervade the show — an Oval Office telephone, video games, groupies and hangers-on. But that's part of why this offbeat musical works as well as it does — it's a maverick about a maverick.
So if you're tired of current political discourse, there's something temporarily curative about watching a commander in chief ride the presidential desk like a skateboard and drop some musical f-bombs.